Though English may be gaining an ever-greater toehold in the rest of the world, the United States appears to becoming increasingly polyglot. At the same time, first-generation immigrants are making landfall in far-flung locations throughout the U.S., rather than concentrating in a handful of urban centers. Those two trends spell trouble for courts with slim linguistic resources, not to mention non-English-speaking parties who must navigate the justice system.
We must thus expect more situations such as the recent case of Weston Ludrick, a native of Pohnpei who found himself accused of vehicular homicide in Arkansas. Ludrick’s primary tongue is Kiti, and he requested a translator who could assist in his defense. The court provided him with a woman who was a certified translator of Marshallese, but appeared to have only a rudimentary familiarity with Kiti. Ludrick used this fact as grounds for appeal:
Mr. Ludrick contends that he was forced to sit in total incomprehension as the trial went on around him. He asserts that his interpreter, Mrs. Joel, had never been an interpreter of Kiti nor had she interpreted in a jury trial. Moreover, Mr. Ludrick points out that on one occasion during the proceedings he gave an indication that he did not understand Mrs. Joel’s explanation of the proceedings, and he questions whether Mrs. Joel was interpreting the proceedings word for word as opposed to merely providing summaries or explanations. Mr. Ludrick further asserts that prior to the September 21, 2009, hearing, he was scheduled for a forensic evaluation but refused to speak to the psychiatrist because, as explained through Mrs. Joel, Mr. Ludrick did not think she could interpret well for him because she was born on the Marshall Islands. Finally, Mr. Ludrick contends that subsequent to that hearing Ms. Simmons reconsidered Mrs. Joel’s qualifications and believed she was no longer qualified to be a non-certified interpreter. Mr. Ludrick maintains that under these circumstances, the accuracy and scope of the translation during the proceedings were subject to grave doubt and that his due process rights were violated. Due to the trial court’s error in failing to make available a qualified and certified interpreter, Mr. Ludrick requests a new trial.
Ludrick lost his appeal because an Arkansas appeals court found that sufficiently diligent efforts had been made to locate a certified translator of Kiti, to no avail. But might this be a situation in which affordable technology could have come to the rescue? Granted, it’s going to be hard to find speakers of obscure languages in certain corners of the country where immigrant communities are small. But there is scant effort required these days to set up a video link to a distant locale; it seems Ludrick would have been better off communicating with a competent translator via Skype than being baffled by his court-appointed intermediary.